Young Adult Critiques Perpetual Adolescence
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2011 16 Dec
DVD Release Date: March 13, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: December 9, 2011 (limited); December 16, 2011 (wide)
Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)
Run Time: 94 min.
Director: Jason Reitman
Actors: Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt, Elizabeth Reaser, Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins, Mary Beth Hurt
CAUTION: This review includes references to and discussion of explicit content.
Are you tired of movies that celebrate never-ending adolescence? You know the movies I’m talking about—the ones where the chubby guys end up with the gorgeous gals despite the fact that they spend their days playing video games and their nights getting drunk. Maybe it starred Seth Rogen or Jonah Hill—talented comedic actors, but not exactly hunks.
One person who’s had enough of such movies is Diablo Cody, writer of Juno. Her latest script, Young Adult, shifts the protagonist from male to female, but it does much more than tell the same old tale from a different gender perspective. Instead, Cody has created a brassy character that viewers will find off-putting, to say the least. The very behaviors about arrested adolescence that movies tend to celebrate—the drinking, drugging and lusting—are, in Young Adult, seen as symptomatic of the protagonist’s deeper problems. It’s a message that sneaks up on you in Young Adult—part of a story that isn’t wholesome but which has an emotional honesty that’s all too rare for mainstream comedies.
Charlize Theron (The Road) stars as Mavis Gary, a divorced author of young adult (YA) fiction who has left her small town in Minnesota after hitting the big time. A personal crisis more dire than anything Mavis might invent arrives in the form of an e-mail announcing that her high-school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson, Morning Glory), is expecting his first child. The news stirs something within Mavis, who leaves her high-rise apartment with a gorgeous view of Minneapolis to return to her “hick” hometown and win back Buddy. Why wouldn’t he want her back?, Mavis wonders. She’s convinced she’s saving him from being “trapped with a wife and a kid, and some crappy job.”
The route into her hometown includes a Taco Bell, KFC and chain stores like Staples—there’s a new Chipotle on the way, too—all signaling to Mavis that she’s temporarily traded the independent vibe of city retailers for big-box, fast food blandness. So Mavis seeks out a local dive, where she runs into former high-school classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt). Hobbled since being attacked in high school by a group of jocks who thought he was gay, Matt cozies up to the gorgeous Mavis, eager to find out why she’s in town. It takes another meeting and a few more drinks with Matt before Mavis coughs up the real reason she’s returned home: to steal Buddy away from his wife (Elizabeth Reaser, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1) and child (“babies are boring,” she says) and to resume their high-school relationship. “Love conquers all,” she tells Matt. “Haven’t you seen The Graduate?”
The signs of Mavis’ growing delusion are apparent to Matt, the movie’s voice of reason, when he first hears about her loopy plan. So he tries to persuade Mavis that her plan is ill-advised, gently chiding her while simultaneously giving off a sense of resignation that his pleas will go unheeded.
It’s Oswalt who’s the heart of Young Adult, a representative of all those who don’t hit it big and who find themselves, years after graduating, still in their hometowns and working hard. Mavis remains a stunning beauty—the type a high-school guy doesn’t forget. But the mature Matt doesn’t put her on a pedestal. He’s happy to have a drink with her, but rather than imagine how he might worm his way into her life, he’s content to return home to his hobbies.
Mavis may not be completely oblivious to her own problems, but she’s also not self-aware enough to overcome them. She recognizes that she may be an alcoholic, but no sooner does that moment of honest self-assessment pass than she’s telling Buddy, “We can beat this thing together”—“this thing” being Buddy’s marriage. It takes a crowd of old acquaintances—parents, classmates and friends—to open Mavis’ eyes to how she’s seen by others: not as a beauty queen but as an object of pity in need of emotional help.
Young Adult is not a complete picture of Mavis’ needs—it has nothing to say about her spiritual needs—but the story’s clear-eyed view of Mavis as a deeply troubled individual in need of an intervention makes Young Adult one of the bravest studio movies in recent memory. Theron is spectacular as the self-deluded beauty Mavis, while Oswalt gives the film a grounded, everyman perspective, skillfully undermining the audience’s tendency to view his character, not Theron’s, as pitiful.
Cody’s script is the glue that holds everything together. Teaming with director Jason Reitman for their first project together since Up in the Air, she delivers a story that offers much more than just a female take on a traditionally male-dominated narrative. Young Adult shows the downside of arrested development and of society’s skewed view that our high-school years are the best times of our lives. In that sense, Young Adult is a grown-up movie for grown-up viewers, and a wake-up call for people who believe the best years of their lives are behind them.
It’s a good enough message to make you not care too much when, in Young Adult, the chubby guy gets the girl.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; several uses of the “f”-word; several references to Matt’s damaged penis; “crappy”; “a-s”; gay slur; discussion of masturbation and orgasm; “b-tch”; “s-it”; “p-ss”; an all-female rock band goes by the name "Nipple Confusion."
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Characters drink at bars, restaurants and elsewhere; Mavis says she might be an alcoholic; smoking in bar scenes; Mavis briefly sniffs glue; Matt drinks, but tries to keep Mavis from drinking too much and doing regrettable things; musical reference to drugs; drunk driving; a home-based liquor-making operation.
- Sex/Nudity: Shots of Mavis on her bed, in night clothes; cleavage; Mavis removes breast cups from under bra; later, she stands exposed, cups covering her breasts and underwear on; Mavis wakes up in bed with a man she’s met and had a drink with; Mavis kisses Buddy and tells his wife she used to sleep in his boxers and t-shirts; she reminisces about the first time she performed oral sex on Buddy; discussion of out-of-wedlock pregnancy; two people start to have sex on a bed, the man still in his underwear and covering the woman’s nakedness beneath him.
- Violence/Crime: Matt was the victim of a purported hate crime after being assaulted as a high-schooler by jocks, but once he let it be known that he wasn’t gay, the crime was reclassified.
- Marriage: Mavis views marriage and parenthood as an undesirable burden.
- Religion: Buddy invites Mavis to his baby’s naming ceremony, but explains that it’s “not religious or anything.”
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